Thursday, January 14, 2010

Career Lessons from Groucho

With massive layoffs at newspapers and TV news departments, photojournalists and videojournalists are legitimately complaining that their industry is passing them by. Even the best and brightest are being sent to pasture. Top newspapers in our nation's capital have recently lost the award-winning talents of luminaries such as Travis Fox and Pierre Kattar (Washington Post) and Mary Calvert and Janet Reeves (Washington Times) -- a horrifying scenario that's reverberating in newsrooms throughout the land.

Every photography and journalism trade publication wails, "How can this be happening?" and "What can we do to stop the bloodbath?" Sure, we know all the economic reasons, but it's so... unfair! To rob these superstars of their forum, and deprive audiences of their work is so... wrong!

Then we read this recent blog post by marketing superguru Seth Godin. Though he was addressing mass marketers, his wisdom applies to visual journalists as well: "Just because you're good at something doesn't mean the market cares any longer."

He imparts cold truths by reminding us of the career of comic genius Groucho Marx.

The Marx Brothers were great at vaudeville. Live comedy in a theatre. And then the market for vaudeville was killed by the movies. Groucho didn't complain about this or argue that people should respect the hard work he and his brothers had put in. No, they went into the movies.

Then the market for movies like the Marx Brothers were making dried up. Groucho didn't start trying to fix the market. Instead, he saw a new medium and went there. His TV work was among his best (and certainly most lucrative).

It's extremely difficult to repair the market.

It's a lot easier to find a market that will respect and pay for the work you can do. Technology companies have been running this race for years. Now, all of us must.

If some cultural shift has turned what you do into a commodity, don't argue. Find a new place before the competition does. It's not easy or fair, but it's true.
OK, all you visual storytellers. Now that your stock photos sell for pennies, media staff positions are drying up, and "citizen photographers" are cornering the market with shoddy goods at the right price (free!) -- what are you going to do with your talents?

What's your plan?

Are there avenues still open for you to explore? Probably not. Those days are gone, kaput -- get used to it, live with it, deal with it. Can you forge new avenues, create new paths, blaze new trails? Pioneer and conquer new territory, like Groucho did? You bet your life.

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